It’s not often you see a half-naked pole dancer cavorting onstage at the Metropolitan Opera House. But that’s just one of the many startling sights in their new production of Rigoletto. Staged by theater director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, American Idiot) in his Met Opera debut, this audacious version of Verdi’s 1851 classic has been reset to 1960’s era Las Vegas. And while the updating has the sort of logistical flaws typical of such operatic revampings, it’s an entertainingly robust and imaginative rendition that should attract fresh audiences.
There’s no doubt that we’re no longer in 15th century Italy from the first glimpse of Christine Jones’ lavish set design of a Vegas casino emblazoned with neon signs and the performers clad in Susan Hilferty’s tacky, brightly-colored costumes. Here, the Duke (Piotr Beczala) is a womanizing, Sinatra-style lounge singer in a white dinner jacket, grabbing a microphone to sing his aria “Questa o quella” to an adoring crowd.
The hunchbacked Rigoletto (Zeljko Lucic) is his sidekick, an abrasive, Don-Rickles type comedian. The basic story, adapted from a Victor Hugo play, manages to come through clearly in this conception. The Duke seduces Rigoletto’s beautiful virginal daughter Gilda (Diana Damrau), thereby incurring his wrath. He hires a killer, Sparafucile (Stefan Kocan), to exact revenge, with inevitable tragic results.
This sort of thing has been done many times before, with Rigoletto in particular having undergone numerous transformations in its long performance history, including a famous version staged by Jonathan Miller for the English National Opera that was set in 1950’s Little Italy. But the opera, unlike certain others in the standard repertory, is strong enough to endure such tampering. Here, even the jarringly slang-laden translation delivered via surtitles is more amusing than heretical.
And, as is usual for the Met, the production is beautifully sung. Polish tenor Beczala does beautifully by such familiar arias as La donna e mobile” while delivering a smoothly charismatic performance. Serbian baritone Lucic makes a strong vocal impression as the Duke, even if his acting leaves something to be desired. German soprano Damrau sings luminously as the doomed Gilda, and Slovakian bass Kocan makes for a memorably oily hit man, inspiring chills with his deep rumblings. Belarussian mezzo-soprano Oksana Volkova is also memorable, both visually and aurally, as Sparafucile’s seductive sister Maddalena. Italian conductor Michele Mariotti presides over the proceedings expertly, fully mining the riches of Verdi’s score.
Clever touches abound, such as when Gilda’s near-dead body is disposed of not by bundling it into a sack but instead stuffed into the truck of a vintage Cadillac. During the storm scenes, flash of neon lightning crisscross the set. And Monterone (Robert Pomakov), the count who places a fateful curse on
Purists will inevitably scoff. But there’s no denying that this Rigoletto is a freshly invigorating, especially when compared to such recent Met productions as their drearily monochromatic Don Giovanni. And it will probably play terrifically in its Feb. 16 broadcast as part of the increasingly popular Live in HD series, shown in movie theaters around the world.
Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center. 212-362-6000. www.metopera.org. Through May 1.
As show business Cinderella stories go, it’s one of the best. In just a few short years, 26-year-old Laura Osnes has gone from unknown reality show competition winner to bona-fide Broadway star. After playing Sandy in the Broadway revival of Grease that was her prize for winning on TV’s Grease: You’re on the One That I Want, she’s gone on to starring roles in South Pacific, Anything Goes, and a Tony nomination for Bonnie and Clyde. Add to that acclaimed turns in the Encores! production of Pipe Dream, a concert version of The Sound of Music at Carnegie Hall, and the title role in the upcoming revival of Cinderella, and it’s easy to imagine what comes next.
A cabaret debut, of course, as has become de rigueur for Broadway leading ladies. And what better place than the swanky Café Carlyle, where the gorgeous, fresh-faced ingénue is delivering an evening that serves as both a showcase for her gorgeous soprano and an audition for upcoming starring roles.
Such as Marian in The Music Man, from which she sings “’Til There Was You.” Or Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, from which she not only belts out “Don’t Rain on My Parade” but also plays a tape of her singing it when she was just a child.
Although it contains touches of sensuality, such as an irony-free rendition of “Fever” and the skintight dress that shows off her perfect figure, the evening is mostly a wholesome one. Romantics certainly swooned on opening night when she brought out her equally adorable husband to sing with her on “A Whole New World” from Aladdin.
Accompanied by a first-rate quartet led by pianist/musical director Fred Lassen, Osnes alternates between selections from her theater repertoire--such as “How ‘Bout a Dance” from the ill-fated Bonnie & Clyde and a rewritten version of “I Have Confidence” from The Sound of Music—and such pop gems as Sara Bareilles’ “Bluebird,” Norah Jones’ “Sunrise” and a couple of songs by Randy Newman, including “When She Loved Me,” movingly dedicated to her late mother.
The opening night crowd was also treated to a special guest appearance by her Anything Goes co-star Joel Grey, who dueted on an endearingly ragged version of “Friendship” in which both forgot lyrics and an amusing “Pineapple Song” from Cabaret.
Although her crystalline voice shines, Osnes still has a ways to go in terms of lyrical interpretation and full emotional connection with her material. But give her some time—she’s still at the beginning of what is undoubtedly going to be a long and successful career.
Café Carlyle, 35 E. 76th St. 212-744-1600. www.thecarlyle.com.
Thanks to Discovery Times Square, there’s a lot more to do in the theater district than just see a Broadway show. This massive space located in the former digs of the New York Times has played host to a series of fascinating exhibitions, with this summer’s diverse offerings being Terracotta Warriors: Defenders of China’s First Emperor and the rather more modern Spy: The Secret World of Espionage.
Unless you’re fortunate enough to be visiting China, Terracotta Warriors is the closest you’ll get to these magnificent figures that are more than 2,000 years old. Or, at least a tiny portion of them: The show includes only ten (the maximum allowed to leave China) of the some 8,000 life-size terracotta warriors, each weighing approximately 600 pounds, which were built for the tomb of the ancient Chinese emperor Qin Shiguangdi to protect him in the afterlife.
Buried with him in the second century BCE, they were only discovered by accident in 1974 by some farmers who were digging a well outside the city of Xian. A massive museum eventually sprung up to showcase them, although since then samples have toured museums throughout the world.
And now they’ve shown up in Times Square, in a beautifully laid-out exhibition that well showcases their ancient glory. The bright colors that once adorned the hyper-realistic figures have long since faded away. But as dramatically lit and presented here, they exert a compelling fascination nonetheless.
Representing various military ranks from generals to foot soldiers, this clay figures feature elaborate uniforms, unique facial expressions and, in one striking case, a life-size horse.
There’s much more to see as well. Brief film selections provide historical background information, which you’ll no doubt find illuminating unless you happen to be up on ancient Chinese history. The exhibition also includes over 200 artifacts from the period, many of which were originally buried with the warriors in the emperor’s tomb. They include a spectacular suit of armor, jewelry, musical instruments, a bronze ritual vessel, gold ornaments, and most notably, gates from an ancient Han burial chamber that is being displayed for the first time since its discovery.
The most appropriate attire for attending Spy: The Secret World of Espionage is a trench coat and fedora, the better to get you into the proper frame of mind for this fascinating show of objects relating to the world of espionage. Culled from the collections of the CIA, FBI, National Reconnaissance Office and especially the voluminous private collection of historian H. Keith Melton (author of such books as The Ultimate Spy and the forthcoming Spy’s Guide to New York City), the exhibition provides endless insight into the world of spies, largely through the tools of the trade.
Thus you’ll see such artifacts, many of them previously hidden, as a collapsible motorbike employed by Allied parachute forces in World War II; a dead rat with a hollow cavity used for dead drops in Moscow during the Cold War (hot pepper sauce was sprinkled on them to prevent them from being carried away by rapacious cats); a lifelike robot catfish, one of only two in existence; an Enigma Machine used by German military forces to create supposedly unbreakable codes; a STASI infrared attaché case equipped for covert photography; and a KGB model of the bugged US Embassy building in Moscow.
History buffs, albeit those of a ghoulish bent, will be thrilled to see the actual blood-stained axe used in the assassination of Leon Trotsky as well as the broken eyeglasses of his killer.
There are special sections devoted to such topics as homing pigeons that were used as couriers in World War II; U-2 spy planes, such as the one piloted by Gary Powers shot down by a Russian missile; and such recent infamous traitors as Aldrich Ames, John Walker and Robert Hanssen. There’s also special attention paid to Anna Chapman, the comely but amateurish Russian spy who achieved tabloid notoriety.
The show also includes cheesy interactive elements in which you can alter your own photograph and voice and dodge laser beams in Mission: Impossible style. And I’m not sure it needed to include a full-size recreation of the Oval Office. But these quibbles aside, Spy compellingly brings to light the gritty professional details of a milieu most of us know only from headlines and sensationalistic thrillers.
Discovery Times Square, 226 W. 44th St. 866-987-9862. www.discoverytsx.com. Terracotta Warriors through Aug. 26. Spy through Mar. 31.
Paul Simon collaborated with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in a revelatory concert featuring selections from his classic songbook. To read my New York Post review, click here.
Herb Alpert and his wife, singer Lani Hall, are delivering an evening of blissful nostalgia and superb musicianship at the Café Carlyle. Representing a rare concert appearance by the legendary trumpeter--and under wonderfully intimate circumstances at that--the show is not to be missed.
In the course of the relaxed proceedings, Alpert frequently takes the opportunity to gab with the audience. Admitting that at this point in his highly successful career—he was also the co-founder of A&M Records—he doesn’t need the money, he explains the real reason for his return to live performances: “I need the energy.”
And even at age 76, that energy is on ample display. Playing a muted trumpet, his instrumentals were as joyous and precise as they were fifty years ago when he burst into international stardom with the Tijuana Brass.
The evening showcases Alpert’s jazzier side, with many selections taken from the couple’s Anything Goes CD. Accompanied by a superb three-piece band, Hall, formerly the original lead singer with Sergio Mendes’ Brasil 66, lends her lustrous pipes to standards by the likes of Berlin and Porter as well as several Brazilian numbers. Her consistently powerful vocals on such songs as “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” and “Anything Goes” display as much emotional desperation as joyous defiance.
Alpert frequently sings too, to charming effect. He delivered a charming medley of “This Guy’s in Love with You” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” in a whispery but appealing voice that belied his protestation that “this is what you call chutzpah.” But it’s his instrumentals that truly shine, such as a Latin-style arrangement of the classic “Laura” and a “Night and Day” that amusingly included snippets of “If I Was a Rich Man.”
It’s when Alpert tapped into his hit-laden past that the audience truly swooned with delight. After a brief snippet from his monster hit, “Rise,” he performed a medley of Tijuana Brass favorites that was far too brief. Hearing his stirring trumpet on such classics as “The Lonely Bull,” “A Taste of Honey,” “Tijuana Taxi” and “Whipped Cream” was sheer baby boomer heaven.
“That was fun, I had a good time,” Alpert commented after the medley was done. So did we, Herb, so did we.
Café Carlyle, 35 E. 76th St. 212-744-1600. www.thecarlyle.com.